REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA)
PREAH VIHEAR, Cambodia (AFP) — Thailand sent more military reinforcements to a disputed part of the Cambodian border Friday, after the tense four-day standoff nearly erupted into gunfire during the night.
Cambodian official Hang Soth told reporters 109 troops had arrived Friday, joining some 400 Thai soldiers already stationed across from more than 800 Cambodians.
Both sides have set up around a small Buddhist pagoda on the slope of a mountain leading to the ruins of 11th century Preah Vihear temple, which is the epicentre of a territorial dispute over the surrounding land.
Thai army Colonel Chay Huay Soongnern insisted that the soldiers were there to turn away any Thai nationalist protesters, after about 4,000 tried to march to the disputed zone on Thursday.
“We all love peace. We are here, we don’t want anything. We came to offer protection in case Thai protestors come here,” he said.
“We came to help Cambodian troops and their people. I don’t think that we will stay here much longer,” he added.
The standoff nearly erupted into violence late Thursday, when witnesses said troops twice pointed their guns at each other during 10 tense minutes at the pagoda when 50 Cambodian troops entered the pagoda compound to protect food supplies for dozens of monks.
“Our troops and Thai troops pointed their guns at each other. They were on alert,” said Brigadier Chea Keo, commander-in-chief of the Cambodian army at Preah Vihear.
“After that Cambodian military commanders and Thai commanders held talks for approximately one hour. We solved our problems after talks with Thai commanders,” he said. “The situation is stable now.”
He said Cambodian troops agreed to stay outside the pagoda during the night to avoid confrontations.
The mood appeared less tense Friday morning as Cambodian soldiers went back inside the pagoda and were seen chatting and smiling with Thais.
But Cambodian Premier Hun Sen told his Thai counterpart Samak Sundaravej in a letter Thursday that the row was worsening and harming their relations.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen doesn’t want to see any Thai blood or Cambodian blood on the land because of this misunderstanding,” Phay Sithan, spokesman for the Cambodian cabinet, told reporters at the scene Friday.
Top officials from both countries plan to meet Monday to resolve the standoff. Samak held talks with top defence officials Friday to prepare for the talks.
“We will raise all contentious issues at this meeting, including the disputed area and Cambodian settlements. All would be solved at the meeting,” Lieutenant General Niphat Thonglek, military chief for border affairs, told reporters after the meeting.
The troops are deployed in a small area claimed by both countries near the Preah Vihear temple.
Thai troops arrived after three Thai protesters illegally broke across on Tuesday vowing to reclaim the temple, which they say rightly belongs to them.
The World Court in 1962 determined the Preah Vihear ruins belong to Cambodia, even though the most accessible entrance lies in Thailand.
The issue has taken on national importance in both countries.
Cambodia is preparing for general elections on July 27, while Thailand has recently been rattled by anti-government protests, driven in part over the handling of the land dispute.